Short summary - The Tartar Steppe - Dino Buzzati

Italy literature summaries - 2023

Short summary - The Tartar Steppe
Dino Buzzati

The action takes place in an indefinite time, most of all reminiscent of the beginning of our century, and the unknown state depicted on its pages is very similar to Italy. This is a novel about time eating life. The irreversibility of time is the fatal fate of man, the night is the highest point of the tragic tension of human existence.

Young lieutenant Giovanni Drogo, filled with bright hopes for the future, is assigned to the fortress of Bastiani, located next to the endless Tatar desert, from where, according to legend, enemies came. Or they didn't come. After a long wandering, the lieutenant finally finds his way to the Fortress. During the journey, Drogo's enthusiasm for his first appointment fades, and the sight of the bare yellowish walls of the fort leads to utter despondency. Major Matti, understanding the mood of the young officer, says that he can file a report on his transfer to another place. In the end, embarrassed, Drogo decides to stay in the Fortress for four months. At the request of Drogo, Lieutenant Morel leads Drogo to the wall, beyond which lies a plain framed by rocks. Behind the rocks is the Unknown North, the mysterious Tatar desert. They say that there are “solid stones”. The local horizon is usually covered with fog, but they say that they saw either white towers, or a smoking volcano, or “some kind of elongated black spot” ... Drogo cannot sleep all night: water is squelching behind his wall, and nothing can be done about it .

Soon Drogo takes over the first duty and observes the changing of the guard, performed under the command of senior sergeant Tronk, who has been serving in the Fortress for twenty-two years and knows by heart all the intricacies of the fortress charter. Servant Tronk does not leave the Fortress even while on vacation.

At night, Drogo composes a letter to his mother, trying to convey the oppressive atmosphere of the Fortress, but ends up writing a simple letter with assurances that he is doing well. Lying on a bunk, he hears the sentries mournfully calling to each other; “... it was on this night that a slow and inexorable countdown began for him.”

Wanting to buy an overcoat simpler than the one that was in his luggage, Drogo meets the tailor Prosdochimo, who has been repeating for fifteen years: they say, he will leave here any day. Gradually, Drogo learns with surprise that there are many officers in the Fortress who have been waiting with bated breath for many years when the northern desert will give them an extraordinary adventure, “that wonderful event that everyone has at least once in their life.” After all, the Fortress stands on the border of the Unknown, and not only fears, but also hopes are associated with the unknown. “However, there are those who have the strength to leave the Fortress after serving their time, for example, Count Max Latorio. Together with him, his friend, Lieutenant Angustina, served his two years, but for some reason he resolutely does not want to leave.

Winter is coming and Drogo is starting to prepare for his departure. It remains a trifle - to pass a medical examination and receive a paper about unsuitability for service in the mountains. However, the habit of the narrow closed world of the Fortress with its measured life takes its toll - unexpectedly for himself, Drogo remains. There's still plenty of time ahead, he thinks.

—Drogo goes on duty to the New Redoubt — a small fort a forty-minute walk from the Fortress, standing on top of a rocky mountain above the Tatar desert itself. Suddenly, a white horse appears from the side of the desert - and everyone knows that Tatar horses are exclusively white! With you, everything turns out to be much simpler - the horse belongs to Private Lazzari, she managed to run away from her master. Wanting to quickly return the mare, Lazzari gets out of the walls of the fort and catches her. When he returns, the password has already been changed, but he does not know the new one. The soldier hopes that, having recognized him, his comrades will let him back, but those, following the charter and obeying the mute order of Tronk, shoot and kill the unfortunate.

And soon, on the horizon of the Tatar desert, a black human snake begins to move, and the entire garrison is thrown into confusion. However, everything is quickly clarified: these are the military units of the northern state marking the border line. In fact, the demarcation marks were set a long time ago, there was only one unmarked mountain, and although it was of no strategic interest, the colonel sent a detachment there under the command of Captain Monti and Lieutenant Angustina to get ahead of the northerners and attach a couple of extra meters of territory. In his elegant uniform, the proud Angustina is completely unsuited to traveling through the mountains; he catches a cold in the icy wind and dies. He is buried as a hero.

Several years pass; Drogo goes to the city - on vacation. But there he feels like a stranger - his friends are busy with business, his beloved girl has lost the habit of him, his mother internally resigned himself to his absence, although she advises him to apply for a transfer from the Fortress. Drogo goes to the general, confident that his request for a transfer will be granted. But, surprisingly, the general refuses Drogo, motivating the refusal by the fact that the garrison of the Fortress is being reduced and, first of all, old and honored warriors will be transferred.

In anguish, Drogo returns to Bastiani's fortress. A feverish turmoil reigns there - soldiers and officers leave the garrison. Drogo's gloomy despondency is dispelled by Lieutenant Simeoni: through his spyglass, he saw some kind of lights on the edge of the Tatar desert, which now disappear, then reappear and constantly make some kind of movement. Simeoni believes that the enemy is building a road. Before him, “nobody had observed such a striking phenomenon, but it is not excluded that it happened before, for many years or even centuries; for example, there could be a village or a well, to which caravans were drawn - it’s just that no one in the Fortress has ever used such a strong spyglass as Simeoni had.” But then an order comes in prohibiting the use of optical devices not provided for by the charter in the Fortress, and Simeoni surrenders his pipe.

In winter, Drogo clearly feels the destructive power of time. With the onset of spring, he peers into the distance for a long time with the help of a breech pipe and one evening notices a small fluttering flame in the eyepiece. Soon, even in broad daylight, against the backdrop of a whitish desert, you can see moving black dots. And one day someone talks about the war, "and the seemingly unrealizable hope again began to breathe within the walls of the Fortress."

And now, about a mile from the Fortress, a pillar appears - strangers have reached the road here. The enormous work that has been carried out for fifteen years has finally been completed. “Fifteen years for the mountains is a mere trifle, and even on the bastions of the Fortress they did not leave any noticeable trace. But for people, this path was long, although it seems to them that the years have somehow flown by unnoticed. Desolation reigns in the Fortress, the garrison has been reduced again, and the general staff no longer attaches any importance to this citadel lost in the mountains. The generals do not take seriously the road laid across the northern plain, and life in the fort becomes even more monotonous and secluded.

One September morning, Drogo, now a captain, is walking up the road to the Fortress. He had a month's vacation, but he survived only half the term, and now he is returning: the city has become completely alien to him.

“The pages turn, months and years pass,” but Drogo is still waiting for something, although his hopes are weakening every minute.

Finally, the enemy army really approaches the walls of the Fortress, but Drogo is already old and sick, and he is sent home to make room for young, combat-ready officers. On the way, Drogo overtakes death, and he understands that this is the main event of his life. He dies looking up at the night sky.